The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 27 March 2014

Wonderful, Wonderful Times

Hello Gentle Reader

Elfriede Jelinek’s work is categorized in three different areas, generally seen by themes and areas of obsession. There is the political and socially aware commentary work, the feminist inferno – or a women’s place in society; and then Austria’s inability (or decision not to) digest and deal with their Fascist past, and their neo-fascist present. “Wonderful, Wonderful Times,” follows in the later obsession. It deals with Austria’s Nazi past; a past neither denied nor talked about openly. For Jelinek this is another day at the office. Provocation is her trade. Words and writing are her tools. Jelinek does more than push the envelope; she throws it in the readers face. Critics are divided on her work. Is it extraordinarily bold and avant-garde (?) or: Is it pornography and violence shoveled into an incomprehensible mess, which survives not by literary merit but by shock value (?). There is no middle ground with Jelinek. However as a reader you are certainly going to be pushed from one side to the other, throughout the reading experience. At times one will be amazed at the use of language – and can’t help but feel that the poor translator does not have a chance at truly translating the work, verbatim – because something must certainly be lost. That being said, any translator with the gall to do take on such a project, with the knowledge that they will not be able to offer the entire picture of the artistic creation and ingenuity, is certainly worth admiration. On the other hand, as a reader, one will be shocked and disgusted at the world that Jelinek has come to observe. Jelinek is not an easy writer to get along with as a reader. Her characters are the most degraded creatures; products of a society that demand perfection; results of their gender; they are the outcomes of over demanding parents; and the harvested sewage, of a household that is affected by social standing or lack therefore. Welcome to Jelinek’s world. It’s a world where the trash is hidden in the dumpster; but someone forgot to shut the lid. Here Jelinek dives, and pulls out every piece of dirty laundered, bit of one’s past. Like a magpie with a silver spoon; Jelinek hordes this treasure, and welds it into a book – in which one is forced to confront society that we live in.

In “Wonderful, Wonderful Times,” Jelinek presents a reality, where the soulless putrefying history of war crimes and guilt has been shoveled and swept under the carpet. It’s the photographs and old war medals tucked away in a box or a chest in the attic. In this post-war Austria, that Jelinek presents she shows the soulless and despicable actions of the past, taint the present; warping the dreams of the future. Those dreams in this case happen to be: Rainer, Anna, Sophie and Hans. These characters are nothing more than vessels, that inhabit a world deprived of any sense of mortality; and in such do not have a concept of morality. They live in a cosmic void. As such they have been contaminated, by the past and their ever growing despicable future that appears to await them. They enjoy their time by participating in anti-social behavior; and justify it, each in their own way. Rainer with his poetry and philosophical Nihilism, Anna who only feels hatred and disgust, Sophie a product of money and its apathy, and Hans a desire for more, which leads to an insatiable greed. These protagonists are filled with every bit of refuse the world could offer; and have thrived in it. They’ve devoured their philosophy their poetry, fed off their hatred, aimlessly enjoying the indifference of their fellow human beings, while maintain a gluttonous desire for more.

The novel switches from perspective, and the inner workings of each character. Each one is carefully measured, and precisely shown their deficiencies in morality. There is no redeemable quality. The novel opens with, the quartet, enjoying the pleasure of causing human being harm. They do it without a second thought. They revel in this action. They enjoy the succulent pleasure of having control – the control to cause another person physical harm, without restraint, and to do so because it is perceived wrong. The way Jelinek describes this gruesome event is both poetic, and lucid; a lucidity and intense enjoyment in language that will ring out through the rest of the novel:

“One night at the end of the fifties an assault is committed in the Vienna municipal park. The following persons all grab hold of one solitary man out walking: Rainer Maria Witkowski and his twin sister Anna Witkowski, Sophie Pachhofen (formerly von Pachhofen), and Hans Sepp. Rainer Maria Witkowski was named after Rainer Maria Rilke. All of them are about eighteen, Hans Sepp is a year or so older than the others, though he too is without a trace of maturity. Of the two girls, Anna is the more ferocious, which can be seen in the fact that she pays most attention to the face of the subject. Particular courage is required if you are to scratch a man’s face while he is looking full in your own (though he cannot see much since it is dark) or indeed try to scratch his eyes out. For the eyes are the mirror of the soul and ought to remain unscathed if at all possible. Otherwise people will suppose the soul is done for.”

Once again, as in previous times, Jelinek shows that music – especially classical music, is a place of violence; as Anna, a musically gifted young woman, sees herself, as above her contemporaries at school. They listen to their pop music, and are considered inferior to Anna. Yet like Erika from “The Piano Teacher,” Anna is the most violent of the group – and Jelinek a musical prodigy herself, who was to be the tool of her own mothers, construct to rise above their own class standing, via her musical talents; shows that music is both deprived and full of meaning; but also has a venomous (at best ambivalent) relationship towards it.

Rainer considers himself the leader of this small band of morally compromised youths. With his philosophy and literature, he deems himself the most intelligent and enlightened one of the group. Going so far as to lecture his sister Anna, on the act and art of violence itself:

“Anna does not know that you cannot buy inner worth. The unfortunate drawback with inner worth is that it is hidden away where no one can see it. Anna wants things that are visible on the outside too, but she won’t admit as much. People should not be beaten up for reasons of hatred but for no reason at all, it should be an end in itself, admonishes her brother Rainer. All that counts is beating them up, whether I hate them or not (Anna). You haven’t understood a single thing, Rainer tells her in a superior tone.”

Rainer is a genius in a sense. However he is tainted. Tainted by his father, tainted by which his intellectual pursuits and curiosity grow. As Jelinek once again points out immediately:

“From time to time a genius will flourish in their midst. The soil that nourishes this genius will frequently be filth, and madness will mark the bounds. The genius will want to escape the filth at all costs, but will not always succeed in eluding the madness.”

Rainer does his best to escape. However he cannot deny who he is, or where his upbringing is taking place. However his geocentricism is always apparent. Literature meets Rainer’s demands. Everything meets in some way or another Rainer’s demands. He lives in the realm of art and philosophy. Everything is subject to his will. Anna and Rainer’s father is an ex-SS officer; a man who sadistically enjoyed his time in the war – and is nostalgic for it. Now a crippled, his appetites are, now fulfilled by enforcing his authoritarian role onto his wife and children. He constantly makes his presence known throughout the house; by beating his children and wife – to forcing his poor meek wife, to participate in pornographic photography. Of course dear old Otto, considers himself an artist. Much like Anna considers herself a classical musician and Rainer a enlightened intellectual, and poet who writes nihilistic morbid poetry, or love poetry to his muse Sophie.

Sophie is indifferent and apathetic. She cannot be troubled by the problems of the suffering of others in the world, or the harm she inflicts on others. A Jelinek points out:

“In her own imagination, Sophie is also made of glass, or sparkling china, or best of all high grade steel.”

Sophie is rich. This alone makes allows her to detach from the on goings of others. She is at the attention of both Hans and Rainer. Hans has ambition; ambition to leave his mothers socialist understandings in the past, with his father a victim of history and the war. Hans has no interest in the past’s repercussions on the presents; but rather looks to the future, as a gleaming ambitious prospect. Hans himself wishes to be as rich as Sophie; and Sophie has no understanding of either what it means to be rich or poor; but rather just too aimless exist like a high grade steel figurine – untouched by the world around her, and its greasy paws. This can clearly be seen in the way that Jelinek describes Sophie’s relationships to acts of violence:

“Sophie has to be properly motivated if she’s to commit a crime, or several crimes, because she herself does not believe she needs to make the effort. Nor is it nice to stay up at night perpetrating deeds that shun the light. It takes willpower, since you could just as well be in bed reading a suspenseful thriller.”

Jelinek does well at bringing the interior lives of these characters, to the forefront of this novel. It’s graceful and lucid. However it’s unpleasant, but also grimly funny. The language is poetic, and at times downright vulgar and colloquial. There is plenty to mull over and plenty to shudder at. It’s a book that will one cringe, and contemplate. It is most certainly not for the faint of heart. Jelinek is a socially and politically aware writer; and “Wonderful, Wonderful Times,” showcases this. It’s a thrilling reading, but not an easy one by far. As horrible as the characters are they are riveting in their own morbidly disturbing moral deficient way.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

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